*The Knockoff Economy*

The authors are Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman, and the subtitle is How Imitation Spurs Innovation.  Here is one excerpt:

During the postwar heyday of the one-liner, there was no strong norm against imitating another comedian.  In fact, comedians copied one another shamelessly, joking about it as they did so.  And the type of comedy prevalent then permitted and even encouraged this practice.  Comedians were telling largely interchangeable generic jokes that a wide audience could appreciate.  Comics differentiated themselves by their performance style: who delivered the joke better, timed the audience better, was able to compile and assemble from a repository of jokes a subset that fitted the particular audience.  Many comedians based their acts on a blend of stock jokes, purchased jokes, and copied jokes.  There was not much investment in the kind of personalized material that dominates today.  Given the system at the time, this made sense.  One-liners were easy to copy; delivery, however, was relatively more difficult to steal.  Post-vaudeville comedians were incentivized to invest in their delivery, not in writing new jokes.

Now compare those comedians with their modern counterparts.  Contemporary comics invest far more in original and personal content.  The medium is no longer focused on reworking preexisting genres like mother-in-law jokes.  Nor is it just about slinging in one funny joke after another.  Comedy today is more personal, more story-telling in orientation, and more consistent with a real or assumed stage persona.  In short, comedians in the post Lenny-Bruce era invest in a personality, and their comedy reflects that personality.  They create a comedic brand of sorts.  And to protect that investment and that brand, they have developed a system of social norms that punishes copying.  At the same time, comedians invest less in some of the performative aspects of their work: many today stand at a microphone, dress simply, and move around very little, with none of the more elaborate costuming, mimicry, musicianship, and play-acting that characterized the post-vaudeville comics.

The book is due out in September.


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